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How should I understand the following sentence?

Missing until recently were fossils clearly intermediate, or transitional, between land mammals and cetaceans.

This from the excerpt of an article:

It should be obvious that cetaceans---whales, porpoises, and dolphins---are mammals. They breathe through lungs, not through gills, and give birth to live young. Their streamlined bodies, the absence of hind legs, and the presence of a fluke and blowhole cannot disguise their affinities with land-dwelling mammals. However, unlike the cases of sea otters and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses, whose limbs are functional both on land and at sea), it is not easy to envision what the first whales looked like. Extinct but already fully marine cetaceans are known from the fossil record. How was the gap between a walking mammal and a swimming whale bridged? Missing until recently were fossils clearly intermediate, or transitional, between land mammals and cetaceans.

Added:

Is "clearly intermediate, or transitional, between land mammals and cetaceans" a clause? It seems that something is omitted here.

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  • The first comma is misplaced. Move it to between the words fossils and clearly, and the sentence will make sense. Jul 23, 2011 at 21:35
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    @RobertHarvey No, putting a comma there would change the meaning. It's (fossils that are clearly …) that were missing, not (fossils). There's a clause from “fossils” to the end of the sentence. Jul 23, 2011 at 21:41

3 Answers 3

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Missing until recently were fossils [clearly] [intermediate,] [or transitional,] [between land mammals and cetaceans].

In your sentence, the adjective intermediate modifies fossils. This adjective is again modified by the adverb clearly. The adjective transitional is in apposition to intermediate and so also modifies it, or it could be said to be parallel to it: in that case, both adjectives modify fossils directly and should be in bold. Thirdly, intermediate is modified by the prepositional phrase between land mammals and cetaceans.

The following is my paraphrase of the sentence. Until recently, certain fossils were missing. What kind of fossils? Fossils that are clearly intermediate, or transitional, between land mammals and cetaceans.

There are various reasons why adjectives may sometimes come after the noun they modify; see this question for some thoughts about the subject: the superlative + noun + possible.

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Fossils ... were missing until recently.

In other words, for a long time nobody had them, but now they do.

"clearly intermediate" modifies "Fossils". "or transitional" is an alternative to the word "intermediate". "between ... cetaceans" is a prepositional phrase used to modify "fossils"... same as saying "the rabbit on the log".

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    @Thomas: Is your "..." part a clause?
    – user8970
    Jul 23, 2011 at 3:30
  • @Jack: You'd get the "..." clause if Thomas's recast had been "... fossils were missing until recently", in which case your extended clause could reduce to "intermediate" or whatever. Jul 23, 2011 at 3:48
  • @FumbleFingers: I don't quite understand what you mean? Do you mean that is NOT a clause? Is this phenomenon called "inversion".
    – user8970
    Jul 23, 2011 at 3:52
  • I mean of course it's a clause, for what that category is worth. Containing various "subclauses", for sure, but you can simplify all those out and just be left with "intermediate [fossils were missing]". Jul 23, 2011 at 4:02
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fossils [that were] clearly intermediate, or transitional, between land mammals and cetaceans were missing until recently.

In other words, there was a gap or a lacking in the fossil record between land mammals and cetaceans. Recent discoveries have filled that gap.

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